From the Springfield Lyceum to Birmingham Jail

In 1838, when he was 28 years old, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. It’s one of his first published speeches, and an early account of his political philosophy. Like Shakespeare or Churchill, Lincoln could animate the language to serve his ends. His imagery was vivid and captured the American character. This is on display in, for example, his often quoted:

All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined... with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years... If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

When Lincoln gave his speech, Adams and Jefferson were but 12 years in their graves, and the Revolution was still in living memory. Many families had flesh and blood attachment to the war. But this was passing. There were incidents of ugly mob action across the West. In nearby Alton, an abolitionist newspaper editor was shot, his printing press smashed and thrown into a river. Across the Mississippi in St. Louis, a jailed freeman was chained to a locust tree and burned alive. Lincoln saw the mob as a threat to the country’s still-young political institutions—but in a more subtle way than is popularly interpreted.

This speech, the Lyceum Address, has been in the news recently. Many see our country under a threat today that is similar in kind if not degree, and find relevance in Lincoln’s warning that mobs prepare the ground for dictators:

Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocractic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed—I mean the attachment of the People. Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last. By such things, the feelings of the best citizens will become more or less alienated from it; and thus it will be left without friends, or with too few, and those few too weak, to make their friendship effectual. At such a time and under such circumstances, men of sufficient talent and ambition will not be wanting to seize the opportunity, strike the blow, and overturn that fair fabric, which for the last half century, has been the fondest hope, of the lovers of freedom, throughout the world.

But what's missing from popular commentary is Lincoln’s analysis of the effect of mob spirit on civic order. He doesn’t directly blame mobocracy for the potential destruction of political institutions. Rather, he blames government’s ineffectual response to lawbreaking—“whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather…” And further:

I know the American People are much attached to their Government; I know they would suffer much for its sake; I know they would endure evils long and patiently, before they would ever think of exchanging it for another. Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property, are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the Government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.

The backwoods autodidact had thought deeply about the law and its purpose. He certainly recognized that some laws were bad or downright ghastly, but such can be changed or repealed only through legal means: "There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.” For Lincoln, if the law is “continually despised and disregarded,” the result will be the end of the government permitting it.

What, then, is the right response to the threats of a “mobocratic spirit” loosed at large?

Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country, and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of '76 did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor—let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children's liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap; let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason—cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason—must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense. Let those materials be molded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the Constitution and laws.

Lincoln, in his lonely struggle to master the law and its relation to political philosophy, had come to an absolutist position. He thus appears to be in stark opposition to more modern political thought, under which law-breaking is tolerable, even admirable, when one’s cause is just. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from Birmingham Jail:

... there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

But, of course, who decides when a cause is just, or when a law is bad? In King’s philosophy, any law not rooted in "eternal law and natural law" is unjust, yet this only begs the political question. Certainly a society in which each citizen can decide which laws to break, and which to follow, is little different from Lincoln’s mobocracy.

It’s a measure of King’s moral genius that he resolved this apparent tension:

I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

He thus closed the circle with a statement of political philosophy nearly consistent—and, in spirit, entirely consistent—with Lincoln’s absolutist legal position and vision of a political religion. By insisting on “the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community” he simultaneously addressed the primacy of the law and proposed one practical tactic to expose bad laws.

Historically, the rule of law has been viewed as a precondition to liberal civic order. Freedom and equality have little force or meaning if not guaranteed by law. Our current civic malaise is shaped, in part, by the perception that the rule of law is breaking down, with the breakdown of liberal order to follow. Mobs and lawbreakers, on both ends of the political spectrum, have their defenders and apologists in city halls, statehouses, and Congress. These representatives find outrage profitable, or are so narrow in their self-righteousness that they can only see in one direction, like some species of crustacean. The critical part of King’s formulation of civil disobedience finds few champions today, and the dire aspects of Lincoln’s prognosis seem to be unfolding.